Second Life Materials System Announced

If you have followed me for a time, you know that I have been mentioning a MATERIALS SYTEM RUMOR. Today the Lab announced that indeed there is a Materials Project. So, what will our world look like with materials? Check out the 2min video.

If the video is still showing as unavailable use this link: Youtube

OK… every one else can display the video and my site won’t…   I suppose I need a plugin change.

Click for Video at Youtube

I think this is pretty awesome. We’ll be using this on buildings and CLOTHES… oh damn, SHOES too. /Me dances looking at my feet and thinking about new shoes.

Why Materials

If you followed the link and are wondering why the announcement bears a title about ‘Performance’, that is because a materials system is used in the 3D modeling world to enhance performance.

It is All Mesh

Performance in 3D virtual worlds is all about how fast a computer can draw polygons and apply texture. The trick in building 3D virtual worlds is how to get a level of detail to make things look real without using a high number of polygons.

To see the SL polygons, press Ctrl-Alt-R or look at the image above.

Normal Maps

To get more detail with fewer polygons professional systems use Normal and Specular Maps. If you have played with building sculpties you understand the idea behind a Normal Map. To explain what it does, I’ll start with what one looks like and an image of what it does.

Normal Map – By Eric Spitler

With and Without Normal Mapping

Image nmap is from 3D Kingdoms Tutorial – If you are into math, this is the tutorial for you. It is for programmers rather than artists building models.

The bluish Normal Map or NMap is what Blender and several other 3D modeling programs would generate. Like a sculpty map where the color tell the system where to put vertices, the NMap’s colors tell the system how to deform a polygons surface… or more accurately how to reflect light from the polygon.

The difference between a sculpty and an object using an NMap is the sculpty uses a vertex for each pixel in the map. So, lots of vertices and polygons. The sculpty map  actually arranges the vertices.

A polygon with an NMap is still just one polygon and 3 vertices. But it looks like way more. So, for way more detail in a model it requires less data be manipulated and renders faster.

The result for Second Life is the detail in everything is going to explode.

Specular Maps

Specular Maps are about light too. They give us the visual clues as to whether some thing is shiny or dull… semi-glossy. Glass and brick texture is obvious to us before we touch them because of the way light reflects off of them. Specular Maps handle that look in 3D worlds. Some call them Gloss Maps.

Specular Attribute of Material in Blender – Enlarge

Material System

Following me you have probably hear me on about a rumor of a material system. This is the rumor turning into a real project. See the Linden announcement here: New Open Source Project to Improve Graphics Rendering Performance

The project is a mix of Third Party Developer and Linden Lab effort. The Exodus Viewer Team is handling the viewer side of the development and the Lab is working on the server side of the project.

I imagine that like sculpty prims have a second texture, the map, so too will objects using Normal  and Specular Maps. But, that is a guess on my part. We’ll soon see.

Watch the Snowstorm Viewer page to see when a Project Viewer comes out. At least that is the page I’ve been told to watch. I advise watching the Second Life Alternate Viewers page too. Most project viewers appear there.


This is an exciting development, at least for me. I think it is the other half of the ‘Mesh’ coin that will transform the appearance of Second Life. I also think this adds a significant chunk of 3D modeling that professional modelers have missed.

19 thoughts on “Second Life Materials System Announced

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  2. Mesh is a disaster, at least for clothing, after all that fanfare, and I wonder if this will be any better.
    I also wonder why this focus on how things look in what is, essentially, a cartoon world. I’d much rather see an emphasis on making SL work better.

    • Wow… the majority of the Lab staff is working on performance issues and bug fixes, clearing literally thousands of issues this year. How much time do you want them to spend on fixes? The whole Shining project is about making things work better…

      This Material System is something residents have been asking for for years. Plus the third party devs are doing most of the work. The lab is doing some server side work.

      • I’d like them to spend as much time as necessary to make SL a comfortable experience. I’m tired of being totally unable to teleport to ANYWHERE at various times during every visit inworld; I’m tired of having avatars disappear from my screen, even though I see them on my mini-map; I’m tired of items disappearing from my inventory at every log-in; I’m tired of group chats that are useless because of horrendous lag (when they’re not totally disfunctional); and I’m tired of becoming a phantom presence that walks through walls or hovers over a non-existent ocean without any impetus from my keyboard.
        I wonder about this supposed clamor for the “Material System.” I’ve been in SL for nearly four years, and I’ve never heard of it before. who are these residents who’ve been asking for it for years?

    • For building mesh is far from a disaster, capable of amazingly detailed builds for very low prim counts. You do have to be careful if you are building large, as land impact (prim count equivalent with mesh) scales with size. As with any build method there well done stuff and junk, let the buyer beware.
      There are decisions to be made and work to do, but mesh will come around in clothing. Not to excuse the Lindens for not seeing the major impact mesh will have on clothing from the very beginning (even though they were told repeatedly).

    • A disaster? Colossal overstatement much? Sure, it has its problems, but so does all new tech when integrated into an old system. Most if not all of mesh’s problems can be solved by careful modelling work (understanding the LI system goes a long way to helping with this) and the upcoming deformer system (whatever form that will end up taking). Remember… Patience is a virtue.

      • Who thought up the idea that ‘patience is a virtue’ idea? I need to have a talk with them.

        I am convinced it is a necessary evil.

      • I write, not as one who works with mesh, but as one has yet to find mesh clothing that will fit properly. I’m told I must change my avatar or use alpha layers to hide it. Yet there’s nothing intrinsically about the shape of my avatar. I might add that my ladyfriend, who has an extremely beautiful and sexy avatar, has the same problem. We’ve both given up on mesh clothing.
        If patience is indeed a virtue, these designers who have gone from making good prim clothing to making poor-fitting mesh clothing should have exercised that virtue and stuck with prims.

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  4. I know what Normal Maps can do for CGI

    I’m wary of the effect on SL performance.

    I am hopeful, because it isn’t the SL developers who are working on the render engine, and anxious about the server-side work on a day when it seems like the SL FUBAR-Server is working as specified.

    [Agile Development: float like a butterfly, plummet like a coyote]

    • Really, normal maps wouldn’t incur an additional performance hit in the deferred rendering pipeline at the very least. Though for forward rendering, we’d need to implement a whole new rendering pipeline for per-pixel lighting for them to be of any use.

      • My understanding is normal maps were developed to improve render speed and add detail cheaply, render cost cheap.

        The viewer already renders a set of bump maps built into the viewer. So, I am not sure why the render pipeline has to change.

        However, the question comes up as to how well the existing render engine uses OpenGL?

        • Bump maps and normal maps are actually two different (yet similar) things.

          Bump maps encode the roughness of a surface. Normal maps encode the direction a surface is facing (which happens to be why they’re so cheap when it comes to lighting).

          As it stands, for the deferred renderer there’ll be a minimal amount of changes required to get this all working. For non-deferred though, there’s a chance there will be some fairly extensive modifications to that rendering pipeline to get everything working.

          OpenGL-wise, the existing renderer utilizes it fairly well. Whenever Basic Shaders are enabled, the renderer has a fully programmable pipeline (something that’s very important now days in modern rendering pipelines).

  5. Not being especially knowledgeable on the subject; if our computers are capable of these tricks and SL has not been taking advantage of them, what else is hiding in those little supercomputers we call graphics cards? What could we be seeing that we are not? Who, if anyone, would be left out if we went yet another step forward?

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